The new/old city of Nazareth

Jerusalem Post, Metro Cover Story, June 19, 2008

It’s evening, and the narrow alleyways of the old Nazareth shuk look deserted except for a few children in jeans playing ball, women in headscarves carrying grocery bags, and European-looking backpackers meandering around as if they’re lost. Dozens of metallic doors painted bright green line the corridors, shut with padlocks. Stone homes are patched up with cement to keep them insulated, their windows broken or sealed with plastic shutters. The only thing filling the shuk is the prayer call of the nearby White Mosque.

But there are pockets of revived beauty in the dilapidated shuk, also known as the Old City of Nazareth. Flower pots on a few sunny balconies supply spots of fresh color. Clean pavements and stairs are lit by fluorescent bulbs that were installed as part of the Nazareth 2000 project to refurbish the Old City for the millennium. In an alleyway once trodden by donkeys, a preserved Ottoman door protects the Fauzi Azar Inn.

A courtyard filled with pigeons leads to the lobby of this three-year-old hostel. Its sky-blue ceiling painted with pictures of cherubs holding bundles of wheat testify to the former glory of this 150-year-old Ottoman-era home. Guests lounge on oriental cushions near a wide window facing the dense shuk. Locals visit the inn just to get a glimpse of how a home in the Old City can be revamped into modern living quarters.

Maoz Inon, who opened the Fauzi Azar Inn, reached an agreement with its owners – the Azar family, whose members now reside in Syria – to renovate the home instead of paying rent, creating the type of hostel he himself, an experienced traveler, would have enjoyed. Thanks in generous part to the inn, the Old City of Nazareth is beginning to flourish.

“Optimism is back in town. We take [some] small credit for it,” Inon says, with measured pride.

Inon, 32, looks like actor Woody Harrelson, with bright blue eyes and a happy-go-lucky smile. Exhibiting the same cheerful naïveté Harrelson displayed in White Men Can’t Jump, Inon has proved that Jewish men can jump into the Arab capital of Israel, gain acceptance, and transform its cityscape.

“I don’t present myself as Jewish,” Inon said, “but as Maoz Inon, experienced traveler, entrepreneur and human being.”

If he has his way, the Old City of Nazareth will become the most “happening” outdoor shopping center in the Galilee, with the refined charm of Tel Aviv’s historic Neveh Zedek neighborhood and the bustle of the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem.

A native of Kibbutz Nir Am near the Gaza border, Inon discovered Jesus’s hometown when he and his then-girlfriend, now his wife, took a break from their jobs at high-tech companies in Tel Aviv to backpack through the country. Nazareth was a stop on the Israel National Trail, and Inon was smitten.

“It’s a city with character and stories to tell, but it’s not a postcard for tourists, like Acre or Jaffa,” he says. “It’s life. It’s real – very authentic, very beautiful.”

A mixture of idealism and capitalism has inspired him to go against the odds and found the Fauzi Azar Inn. “Tourism is a great tool to bring prosperity to neglected places where it’s really needed,” he says. “It works in an honorable way.”

Walking past the colored walls, he recounts the history of the Old City.

Under the British Mandate, it served as a residential district for merchants, effendis (landowners) and government bureaucrats. After the War of Independence, the city absorbed Arab refugees from neighboring communities, some of whom moved into storage rooms.

Up until the 1990s, the Old City had developed a reputation as a bridal market, attracting shoppers from all over the Galilee. There are some remnants of its glory days as a bazaar. A fluffy, ruffled wedding dress that might have been stylish decades ago is prominently displayed in one window. Other stores show off their wares – jewelry, men’s silk button-down shirts, fabrics.

But business in the Old City took a dive with the upsurge of malls and commercial franchises. Some shuk merchants blame the Nazareth 2000 project, which refurbished the sewage system, streetlights and sidewalks at the expense of shoppers’ comfort. The city rebuffs that complaint.

“If we hadn’t done what we did – that is, the renovation and restoration of the Old City in 2000 – I [believe] most of the buildings wouldn’t be here now,” Ramiz Jaraisy, Mayor of Nazareth for the past 14 years, told Metro in a phone interview. “The conditions of the buildings were very bad. We prepared modern infrastructure, renovated the roads there. Of course, the intifada had a negative influence on tourism, especially in Nazareth.”

But in the past few years, Nazareth at large has been revived as a popular tourist destination. On the southern edge of the Old City, hundreds of pilgrims, nuns and priests flock to the Basilica of the Annunciation on the bustling Paul IV Avenue. Souvenir shops, shwarma joints and bakeries abound. Only tourists rarely veer from the standard site-seeing itinerary to check out the city’s adjacent Old City, despite its past prominence.

“It’s the heart of the city,” Jaraisy says of the shuk, “the most important part of the city for historical sites and roots inside. It’s a treasure for human heritage.” The Old City serves as the centerpiece of the city’s efforts to achieve recognition from UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Inon, meanwhile, is leading grassroots efforts to reconceptualize the Old City as the new hot spot for foreign tourists, as well as for Israelis. He commutes to Nazareth from his home in Binyamina, where he lives with his wife and two young children, to greet guests and also encourage locals to develop their own ideas for the shuk.

He stops at an open space featuring a small convenience store and a tailor. “I already envision a piazza,” he says.

Touring the area with Inon, it’s difficult to walk through the shuk without getting stopped by locals who shake his hand with a hearty “Salaam, Maoz!” With his brand-name Israeli sweater and bouncy step, he stands out.
We pass by Wisam Abu Sarem, a young man who has opened an espresso bar in front of an old-fashioned men’s club where middle-aged men are playing backgammon.

We pass by a corner shop, its shelves filled with candy bars, cereals and canned foods. The owners are watching television, hoping one of Inon’s guests will stop by for a snack.

“You must open,” Inon exhorts Naaman Kawar like a motivational speaker. The Nazareth native is planning to open a pizzeria in an old frame shop. It looks like he still has a lot of work to do. The room is furnished with only a table. The only real investment seems to be a mural of a Nazareth street scene, painted by a friend. Another painting, of Mary, rests on an easel.

“I’m afraid to open,” says Kawar, who already looks defeated. “There are no people here.”

“It’s very scary to open a business,” Inon sympathizes. He recalls how it took over half a year to get a steady flow of guests at the inn. He thought of closing down right after the Second Lebanon War, which pounded businesses in northern Israel, but stayed afloat with government compensation. He persisted.

“Everyone is waiting for someone else to take the initiative and do something,” Inon says. “From my experience, no one will do anything. I don’t want to wait.”

His “if you build it, it will come” attitude has worked. This past April was his most successful month yet. Every week, a new study group seems to choose accommodations at the inn, from Christians to Zen Buddhists. He’s taken over old shops on the lower floor to add more guest rooms and a communal dining area.

“If we’re experiencing a recovery, it’s because of Maoz,” says Kawar. “Everyone recognizes it. He gave courage to people to envision something.”

Kawar is hoping to follow Inon’s lead. “I have two huge homes here,” he says. “I hope the area will grow so that I can take a loan, renovate them, maybe make a hostel, like Maoz’s.”

We turn into a busy vegetable market frequented mostly by locals.

Abu Ashraf, 53, greets us with his syrupy homemade katayef desserts, one filled with cheese, the other with walnuts. His restaurant, Diwan Elsaraya, is named after the castle next door that once belonged to Daher el-Omar, the ruler of the Galilee in the mid-18th century. Once a municipal office, it now stands empty.

“If we had 10 more Maozes, it’d be good,” Abu Ashraf said after pouring us some Turkish coffee. Inon often directs his guests Ashraf’s way. “I just look for the good people. Religion doesn’t matter,” Ashraf adds.

Inon sees every business in the shuk as a potential partner, but it took some time for the people in the community to warm up to the non-Arab’s initiative. “Some people didn’t believe this whole story – it’s like introducing a foreign object to the body,” said Abu Ashraf. “Naturally, when something new comes in, you’re suspicious.”

Inon didn’t know too many people at first, but Abu Ashraf observed Inon’s work and gave his “sponsorship,” accelerating his acceptance by everyone else. Recently Abu Ashraf invited Maoz to his neighbor’s wedding.

“He’s smart. He respects people. People respect him. He deserves it. He proved himself.”

The Nazareth Cultural and Tourist Association, a publicly-funded association founded in 1999, has duly recognized the potential of the Old City to become a leading center for commerce and entertainment. It is leading efforts, on the logistical end, to absorb new businesses.

“What you need to do is bring a different type of business,” said Tareq Shihada, the director of the association, as we wait for lunch at the new Saj restaurant. “Businesses have a successful chance within the circumstances.” He envisions galleries, clothing and jewelry boutiques, cafes, skin care shops, pubs, and restaurants. “I use Maoz as an example of someone who dreamed about something.”

Saj is an example of the type of business Shihada hopes to attract – the restaurant is geared to both locals and tourists, it stays open late, and it mixes modernity with Arab tradition and hospitality.

A narrow stairway and arched doorway lead to Saj, but its sign colorfully attests to its modern intentions: “Fashion Food.” The restaurant was co-founded by Amin Zayyad, a culinary pioneer in Nazareth who introduced gourmet Arab food with his former Zaytuna restaurant.

In building Saj, Zayyad and his partners gutted an old house and turned it into another gourmet restaurant with modern lines and leather chairs. Saj could easily fit into a trendy street in Tel Aviv.

“We looked at four to five places appropriate for a business,” said Zayyad, “places where you can develop a center for leisure. We found this strip from Mary’s Well to the shuk. We saw it has long-term potential.”

If Saj could be judged by its food alone, it has a good chance of succeeding. We enjoyed delicious parsley-salmon salad, eggplant topped with flavored tehina, and chicken in yogurt sauce with fenugreek seeds – all served with classic Arab warmth and charm.

“I tell people here you have one commodity no one can compete with: Arab hospitality,” said Shihada. “We don’t need to teach people how to welcome people. It’s built in.”

Zayyad understands, though, how other locals might feel intimidated to venture into the city. “People are afraid to invest in the Old City. It’s a big risk. Ambitious young people don’t know to whom to turn to develop plans,” he said. “It’s lacking in Nazareth. With back up, Nazareth could be a very special center for going out.”

To help counter such concerns by would-be business owners, the Nazareth Cultural and Tourist Association has partnered with the municipality and local centers for business development (Mati) to create a non-profit wing to assist entrepreneurs. Businesses will be exempt from municipal taxes in their first year of operation, and will be charged in 25 percent increments in subsequent years.

Plans are also underway to open an office in the Old City that will act like a real estate office. Part of the challenge in opening new stores is tracking down the owners of the buildings. Once a database of all available properties is created, a municipal liaison will match entrepreneurs with the properties. New businesses will be required to stay open until 10 p.m. as a means of turning the Old City into center for nightlife and competing with local shopping malls.

But some merchants think the city is taking too long. “The municipality always tells us about a five-year plan, but nothing happens!” cries Suleman Aywani, owner of a vegetable store.

To which Inon replies, “Individuals can make the change!”

Optimism doesn’t seem to be carried into a few halls down from the Fauzi Azar Inn, either.

About two months ago, Nazareth resident Raida Saad opened a lingerie boutique. Her shop consists of a room with only a few racks, one for cotton nightgowns, one for silk negligees, and one for undergarments. Her original landscapes decorate the store’s back wall.

Saad pulls out a black negligee imported from an undisclosed Arab country. It goes for NIS 380. “I have very special things,” she says proudly, but then sulks. “Tourists pass by, they don’t come in. Also, Jews who pass by don’t come in. I swear, there are hundreds of people who take pictures near my store window. But they don’t buy anything.”

At Inon’s suggestion she attached price labels to the items for foreigners used to fixed retail prices, “but then the Arabs stopped coming.”

Opposite her, a jewelry store that’s been open for 40 years is empty of customers. The owner glances at the golden hoop earrings, necklaces, and Star of David pendants. “I’d like to get new stuff, but still have trouble selling the old.”

She looks out the window, wistfully. It used to be that on Fridays, the shuk was so crowded you couldn’t pass through. “Now look, it’s empty. But we have a beautiful city,” she says.

Outside, retirees are sitting in chairs, not bothering to woo customers. They usually close their shops at 2 p.m. “You see, they’re all old. They got used to it.”

Inon, she says, has brought some life to the shuk, but a parking deficiency and traffic outside the Old City keep people away. “Tourists come to the church and leave,” she says.

In Inon’s opinion, these veteran shops can’t last much longer without updating their wares to the Old City’s newer vision. For them, he doesn’t have too many words of inspiration.

“It’s part of the circle of life,” he says.